Law & Courts

In U.S. Schools, Race Still Counts

By Caroline Hendrie — January 21, 2004 16 min read
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Many observers of the U.S. Supreme Court were expecting May 17, 1954, to be a run-of-the-mill Monday—until Chief Justice Earl Warren made a surprise announcement: He was ready to deliver the court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

“We conclude—unanimously—that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” he told those assembled that afternoon in the marble-and-mahogany courtroom. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Since that historic moment half a century ago, much has changed in American life and education. By today’s standards, the notion that black children could be consigned to separate schools solely because of their skin color—in a nation founded on principles of freedom and equality—seems unconscionable. Indeed, the nation’s highest-ranking school official, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, is African-American.

Still, how many people would argue that race is irrelevant in contemporary American education? How many would say that the promise of “Equal Justice for All"—the words incised on the Supreme Court building’s facade—has truly become a reality in the nation’s public schools?

Overview of Brown Series
Racial isolation in Summerton, S.C.
Racial imbalance
Overcrowding in Chicago schools
Challenges of diversity in Arlington, Va.'s public schools
Parental Choice

In the past five years, as test-based accountability has come to dominate the public education agenda, the racial and ethnic “achievement gap” has risen to the top of policymakers’ concerns. Eliminating disparities between blacks and Hispanics, on the one hand, and whites and Asian-Americans on the other, is a primary goal of the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2-year-old federal law that now exerts a powerful influence in elementary and secondary education.

Fifty years after racially segregated schooling was pronounced unconstitutional, one-race public schools, and even virtually one-race districts, still exist. Despite a growing number of thoroughly integrated schools, many remain overwhelmingly white or minority. And schools with many black and Hispanic children, especially if most of those pupils live in poverty, often come up short on standard measures of educational health.

Thus, for many of those steeped in the work of making policy and running schools, questions of race and education still matter—just as they did on the day Chief Justice Warren delivered the court’s momentous ruling.

“Issues of race continue to be overpowering forces in American education,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington- based Council of the Great City Schools, “and the pre-eminent challenge for America in the century ahead.”

In light of that challenge, Education Week is setting out to take stock of the role that race continues to play in American schools. This edition features the first installment of a five- part series, which will run in the months leading up to the Brown decision’s 50th anniversary. (“About This Series.”)

‘Ultimate Hypocrisy’

The ruling commonly called Brown v. Board of Education actually decided four, consolidated cases, all challenging the practice of providing separate public schools for blacks and whites. Such segregation had long been shielded by the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites.

See Also...

View the accompanying charts, “The Achievement Gap” and “Interracial Exposure.”

Also read the accompanying story, “Black Students’ Exposure to Whites Found Waning.”

Besides the case out of Topeka, Kan., the others involved districts in Delaware, South Carolina, and Virginia. Because of distinctive legal issues, a fifth case, challenging segregated schools in the District of Columbia, was decided separately in Bolling v. Sharpe, a judgment announced the same day as the Brown ruling.

A year later, in a ruling known as Brown II, the Supreme Court vested local school authorities with chief responsibility for dismantling segregation, which at the time was nearly universal in the South and the states bordering it. That brief decision on May 31, 1955, famously ordered that the transition to nondiscriminatory schooling proceed under the oversight of lower courts with “all deliberate speed.”

As the 50th anniversary of the first Brown ruling approaches, the occasion has prompted an outpouring of conferences, books, articles, speeches, and studies that acknowledge the decision as a milestone in the nation’s long march toward recovery from slavery.

Among some leaders engaged in those commemorations, a common lament is that Topic A in the Brown cases—the racial composition of public schools—has been shunted to the margins of public preoccupations.

“It’s the ultimate hypocrisy if we go into 2004 celebrating Brown v. Board of Education, and all that has been accomplished, and we have nothing to say about the massive patterns of racial segregation in public education and in residential patterns that continue to be a hallmark of American life,” said Theodore M. Shaw, the associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the New York City-based organization that led the assault on Jim Crow education.

Brown was about many things, but at the core of Brown was the notion that the government ought not be able to segregate people on the basis of race and then deprive them of equal opportunity,” added Mr. Shaw, a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s Brown anniversary commission.

Another commission member, Washington lawyer Judith A. Winston, said she also would love to see more communities in which white and minority parents banded together to fight for more integrated schools. But she is not terribly optimistic.

“What is at the heart of my concern ... is my belief that we have not gotten past the deeply ingrained racial stereotypes that have developed in this country over many decades,” said Ms. Winston, who served as the Education Department’s general counsel in the Clinton administration. “The fact of the matter is—and there’s no nice way to put this—white families have been running away from the desegregation remedy in all parts of the country.”

Despite defiance of desegregation that sometimes turned violent, school integration did increase steadily in the decades after Brown and continued through the 1980s.

Obstacles mounted, however, as court orders often proved insufficient to overcome housing patterns and steep declines in white enrollment in the urban districts where minority youngsters continue to be concentrated.

Questions of Access

So even though desegregation advocates often won in court, many plans to desegregate met with limited success. In the past decade, many have been scrapped, spurred by Supreme Court decisions that have stressed the temporary nature of court orders, the importance of local control of schools, and the limits on judicial authority to perpetuate desegregation plans.

“What makes it particularly difficult is that the opportunities for real desegregation in a great many inner cities are very limited,” noted William L. Taylor, a Washington lawyer who is the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private watchdog group that monitors the Education Department’s enforcement of civil rights laws.

Today, most of the desegregation fights of the past half- century have been put to rest, and with them, much of the public attention to the issue. And some say that is as it should be. Given the logistical and legal limits to promoting greater racial and ethnic balance in the schools, some analysts say it is appropriate that the debate has shifted to improving achievement among minority youngsters regardless of the demographic makeup of their classrooms.

After all, those observers say, ending the physical separation of the races was always seen by those battling segregation as a means to an end.

“The real issue was whether everybody was going to have access to educational quality of equal worth,” said Mr. Casserly, whose group represents large-city school systems. “The issue has evolved so that in some ways it has returned to its roots.”

For Secretary Paige, himself a graduate of segregated schools in his native Mississippi, the No Child Left Behind Act is “the logical next step” to the long and far-flung court battles over desegregation that followed Brown. In a Jan. 7 speech in Washington in which he reflected on the Brown decision’s legacy, Mr. Paige praised the law’s insistence that schools report on the performance of students in various racial and ethnic groups and bring them up to academic snuff.

“Equality of opportunity must be more than just a statement of law; it must be a matter of fact,” Mr. Paige said. “And factually speaking, this country does not yet promote equal opportunities for millions of children. That is why the No Child Left Behind Act is so important. After 50 years, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Mr. Paige added in an interview that the Brown case aimed to give black children access to schools from which they had been excluded, but that “we know now because of the 50 years of experience we’ve had that something else is necessary.”

That “something else” still involves access, but in a way that is different from in the past, said Rossi Ray-Taylor, a former district superintendent in Michigan who is now the executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network.

“Fifty years ago, schools attended by African-Americans were hugely underresourced, so it was really an issue of access to resources,” said Ms. Ray-Taylor, whose network includes 21 generally well-off school systems concerned about closing racial gaps in achievement. “The issue of access to quality education and access to achievement is now the place we need to get to. How are we going to teach every kid so they are going to get access to outcomes?”

‘Frightening’ Gaps

Perhaps the best-known statistics about the inequality of those outcomes come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the government-run testing program known as “the nation’s report card.”

Versions of NAEP designed to provide trend data were last given in 1999, and in that year, reading and math tests of 17-year-olds showed that African-American and Hispanic youngsters that age were, on average, scoring at levels roughly on a par with 13-year-old whites.

As the scholars Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom note in their 2003 book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, black youngsters nearing the end of high school, on average, posted slightly lower scores than white 8th graders in both reading and U.S. history, and much lower scores in mathematics and geography. Average scores among Hispanics were slightly better than those for blacks.

Arguing that this “frightening,” four-year skills gap has become a major policy priority only in the past five years, Ms. Thernstrom said in a recent interview that valuable time has been lost in addressing it. Ms. Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts state board of education, and her husband, a professor at Harvard University, are both senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank in New York City.

“The gap itself has been a hush-hush topic until very recently,” she said. “This discussion should have started a long time ago.”

To many analysts, the skills gap is all the more troubling because during the 1990s, black and Hispanic students gave back a good bit of the progress they had made in catching up in the previous two decades.

“There was a tremendous amount of gap-narrowing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and somewhere around 1990, that gap-narrowing stopped,” observed Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that advocates improvement in the education of poor and minority students. “By and large, the gaps have stayed the same since.”

The causes of the nation’s racial fault lines in educational attainment remain poorly understood.

“Most big social facts have more than one explanation, and this is no exception,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a co-editor of the 1998 book The Black-White Test Score Gap.

An Unwanted Guest

Among the perennial questions has been the respective roles played by schools and family. For example, the landmark 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity by the sociologist James S. Coleman sparked controversy in part because it underscored the importance of family background in influencing achievement.

In their 1998 book, Mr. Jencks and co-editor Meredith Phillips of the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded that much more research was needed on both in-school and outside influences, including parental behavior, to figure out how best to bridge the gap.

“Although we believe that improving the nation’s schools could reduce the black-white test-score gap, we do not believe that schools alone can eliminate it,” they wrote.

Seconding that view is an Educational Testing Service researcher, Paul E. Barton, who published a study last year identifying 14 in-school and out-of-school factors linked to student achievement—ranging from rigorous coursework and teacher preparation to children’s birth weight and television viewing—in which blacks and Hispanics suffered disadvantages compared with whites.

“Gaps in school achievement ... have deep roots—deep in out-of-school experiences and deep in the structures of schools,” Mr. Barton concludes in “Parsing the Achievement Gap” from the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS. “Inequality is like an unwanted guest who comes early and stays late.”

Despite the complex origins of the achievement disparities, recent NAEP scores show some evidence that the tide may be turning. For example, black 4th graders narrowed their gap with whites in both reading and math between 1992 and 2003 on the version of NAEP designed to measure current performance across the nation and in the states.

Moreover, examples are multiplying of individual schools, districts, and even states that have made solid, and even startling, advances in closing skills gaps.

Few see grounds for celebrating, though, at a time when the link between what students learn and their future prospects has never been stronger.

“There’s no grounds for complacency,” Ms. Thernstrom said.

To some longtime desegregation researchers, the achievement gap is prime evidence for why the nation should not turn its back on the goal of integrated schooling.

Among them is Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor and a co-director of its Civil Rights Project. Starting with a 1994 book he co-wrote called Dismantling Desegregation, Mr. Orfield and others affiliated with the project have produced a steady stream of reports decrying the “resegregation” of American schools—a trend they link to the widening of the achievement gap.

Legal Barriers

Mr. Orfield points a finger squarely at the Supreme Court for erecting formidable legal barriers to cross-district desegregation plans, especially in a major 1974 ruling involving Detroit and its suburbs known as Milliken v. Bradley. He also faults the high court for other decisions that prompted federal judges to close the books on many desegregation cases in recent years.

“In many districts where court- ordered desegregation was ended in the past decade, there has been a major increase in segregation,” says a report co-written by Mr. Orfield that is slated for release this week. “The courts assumed that the forces that produced segregation and inequality had been cured. They have not.” (“Black Students’ Exposure to Whites Found Waning,” this issue.)

Titled “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or the Plessy Nightmare,” the new report points out that amid continuing demographic changes, the public schools have become nearly 40 percent nonwhite. Key factors cited include a surge in immigration of Hispanics, as well as an influx of Asian-Americans.

“In these circumstances, a civil rights policy based on a black-white paradigm about white exclusion of blacks does not make much sense,” the report says.

Still, a decline in African-American students’ exposure to non- Hispanic white students in public schools is a recurrent concern of the Civil Rights Project.

More than 36 percent of black students went to public schools that were majority white in 1988, but that proportion fell to 30 percent over the next dozen years, according to the report. The trend was more pronounced in the South. From 1954, when almost no African-Americans attended majority-white schools, the proportion steadily climbed to a high-water mark of 43.5 percent in 1988, when the trend started to reverse, the report says. By 2001, the figure had slid to 30 percent.

Latino youngsters’ exposure to non-Hispanic white schoolmates was also on the decline as of 2001, with the typical Latino student attending public schools with white populations of 28 percent. By contrast, Asian and Native American students on average attended schools in which 45 percent of students were non-Hispanic whites.

White students, meanwhile, were attending public schools that were on average 79 percent white.

Some scholars take issue with the Civil Rights Project’s emphasis on minority exposure to whites, arguing that lessened exposure is to be expected in part because the percentage of whites in the student population is steadily declining.

But Mr. Orfield says that demographics alone fail to explain why blacks’ exposure to white students climbed during the period of court-ordered desegregation—especially in the South—and then waned as those orders wound down.

“Public schools were becoming less white ever since Brown, and we got this pattern of increasing desegregation up until the late 1980s,” he said. “And then consistently it turns in the opposite direction.”

Carrying On

One ray of hope for proponents of integration came early last summer when the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, a closely watched case involving admissions practices at the University of Michigan law school.

With a nod toward the Brown decision, the one-justice majority held that promoting racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom could, under some circumstances, justify carefully crafted affirmative action policies.

Legal analysts from differing perspectives agree that the decision might help K-12 districts defend race- conscious practices aimed at fostering diverse student enrollments in selective academic programs. But for other areas in which schools might want to consider race and ethnicity—in general student-assignment policies, say, or transfer decisions—the ruling’s applicability to the elementary and secondary levels is less clear.

“Before Michigan, I would have said that the courts had pretty much struck down race-based policies,” said Alfred A. Lindseth, an Atlanta lawyer who has helped districts and states win release from desegregation court orders. “Michigan has changed the situation. It’s muddied the waters.”

Mr. Taylor of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, whose work has been mainly in securing desegregation orders, not ending them, said he believed the Michigan case gave strong ammunition to districts wishing to pursue voluntary desegregation programs, such as racially balanced magnet schools. Beyond that, he said, “I think we still have to sort it out.”

Toward the end of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion in Grutter, she noted that the number of black and Hispanic applicants to the law school with high grades and test scores had risen over the previous generation. Given that progress, she wrote, the court “expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” to ensure that university classrooms are racially and ethnically diverse.

How that 25-year timetable will be interpreted in the future—as a deadline, or as merely a hope—remains unclear. But two generations after the Brown decision, those carrying the torch of desegregated schooling say they have no plans to rest on their laurels.

“If we really do want to reach a point where we no longer have to employ affirmative action,” Mr. Shaw said, “then we as a nation need to roll up our sleeves and rededicate ourselves to the work that we started so long ago.”

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as In U.S. Schools, Race Still Counts


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